I grew up in Chatham County before the digital revolution, when massive, vacuum-tubed televisions the size of small dinosaurs squatted in lush shag carpet, each set topped with its own rabbit-ear and …
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I grew up in Chatham County before the digital revolution, when massive, vacuum-tubed televisions the size of small dinosaurs squatted in lush shag carpet, each set topped with its own rabbit-ear and hoop antennas. I was lucky; I could watch network television clearly on what my father called the “idiot-box” and even pick up a few snowy independent stations to boot. The scripted happenings of shows like “Happy Days” and “Good Times” were topics of animated conversation at the school lunch table and on the bus ride home.
But what bound us together more firmly than the shared cultural experience of TV was the rock ‘n’ roll we heard on our parent’s hi-fi or on our pocket transistor radios. Sure, I watched episodic television in reruns, but the heightened emotional experience diminished with every viewing. Music was different; I could listen to it over and over and still enjoy the lift it gave me. I must not have been the only kid in Chatham County to think so, because everyone my age dreamed of being a rock star; consequently, by the time we were in high school everyone I knew was learning how to play something whether they could play it well or not: Johnny played the bass, as did Don and Marty. Tim and Dmitri and Dave and Shannon played guitar; Erik drummed. Rodney drummed. Andrew drummed. I heard better rock ‘n’ roll in Chatham County than I ever heard in the clubs of New York.
I rented a room in a band house from friends who played original rock ‘n’ roll. They were all Chatham boys, and they were all roofers, which made scheduling rehearsals easier since they all worked together. Summer months meant heat from both the blazing sun and the asphalt shingles they tacked down by the thousands, but winters meant shortened daylight hours, and when it was too dark to work at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, they all met at the yellow house on Chicken Bridge Road to warm themselves at the wood stove in the kitchen before heading to the band room to jam and rehearse and compose what they called their annual winter music project.
The band room was unremarkable save for its space; the guitar player who rented the place knocked out a wall to enlarge the living room for a half dozen musicians. There was not a stick of furniture, save for the drummer’s stool and the keyboard player’s bench. Everyone had his own personal rug flung over the several area rugs that sat atop the plywood sub-floor. Tapestries, quilts, packing blankets and rugs hung on the walls. They even push-pinned one of those cheap, flimsy, college dorm room bedspreads into the ceiling tiles. It had pink Indian elephants dancing in the pattern, and was sheer enough to billow when anyone walked into the room, making the elephants sway and bob. All this drapery put a damper on the sound erupting from their amplifiers; the cloth interior squelched feedback. It felt like they were rehearsing inside a herder’s yurt on the steppe, or in a Bedouin’s tent in the desert. And these guys were originals — no phony Beatlemania to be found here.
Like most bands everywhere, they cut their demo and played their gigs but never got the big break every band needs. The yellow house was sold for the land it stood on, and the structure was demolished. Everybody in the band moved on as their priorities evolved. They grew up, got married, bought houses and had beautiful kids. Rock ‘n’ roll became a hobby and then a memory. That’s life.
I was walking the dog late one afternoon not too long ago when I heard softly pounding drums from a neighbor’s garage up the street. As I drew closer, I heard a young man’s amplified voice and an electric guitar leading the charge with an original riff. Hearing that kid’s voice over that pulsing rock ‘n’ roll beat was like feeling a life force bursting through all the sickness and isolation of this past year. It was the weed pushing through cracks in the concrete.
I hear over and over lately that now is the time to redefine the priorities in our lives. With the pandemic receding and the country opening up again we have been given a unique opportunity to create a new normal. Never mind the Netflix; I am tired of watching life on a screen. Give me live music. Like the late Bon Scott of AC/DC sang, “Oh, let there be rock!”
Dwayne Walls Jr. has previously written a story about his late father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and a first-person recollection of 9/11 for the newspaper. Walls is the author of the book “Backstage at the Lost Colony.” He and his wife Elizabeth live in Pittsboro.